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Music Reviews

Masters of the Irish Guitar

Masters of the Irish Guitar

Various Artists

Shanachie

When most fans think of the key instruments in Irish traditional music, the top picks would probably be fiddle or flute, perhaps accordion or uilleann pipes — but likely not guitar. This fine album aims to change that opinion, presenting sixteen tunes performed by nine Irish traditional musicians on guitar. Compiled by Danú guitarist Dónal Clancy, Masters of the Irish Guitar consists entirely of previously unrecorded material. All but one of the tracks are acoustic, and most are solo guitar, with a couple adding a bass or bouzouki. There’s a good mix of fast and slow tunes, mostly traditional, but with a generous sprinkling of tunes composed by the guitarists themselves.

The guitarists Dónal picked for this collection are all among the best Irish traditional musicians performing today, and they deliver consistently high-quality performances here. Naturally I have my favorites. For instance, I’ve long been a fan of former Solas guitarist John Doyle, and the two tracks he contributes are excellent as usual, marked by his instantly recognizable driving, percussive style. Donogh Hennessy, who recently left the group Lúnasa to tour with the singer Pauline Scanlon, is a very fine composer as well as guitarist, and his two tracks are great too, especially his original hornpipe “Home by the Fire,” which is filled with lovely, intricate, circular phrases that really do have a comfortable, homey feel. My fellow Chicagoan Dennis Cahill also shines here, joined by P. W. Crump on guitar and bouzouki; Dennis has a lovely light touch on the guitar, as is well known to anyone who has seen any of his amazing performances with fiddler Martin Hayes, and the understated bouzouki accompaniment really brings out the quiet intensity of Dennis’s playing. A new discovery, or rediscovery, for me was Randal Bays. He also has performed with Martin Hayes, and although I’d previously been impressed with his work accompanying Chicago concertina and accordion player John Williams, I haven’t heard much of his playing in recent years. My loss — his two tracks here are both excellent, from the lovely, introspective harp air “The Sheep under the Snow” to a pair of fun, sunny slip jigs, one composed by the guitarist himself.

All in all, Masters of the Irish Guitar is an excellent introduction to the work of some of the finest Irish traditional guitarists performing today. There’s something for anyone who enjoys Irish traditional music, and also plenty for fans of acoustic guitar music.

Shanachie: www.shanachie.com

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Music Reviews

Autumn’s Grey Solace

Autumn’s Grey Solace

Over the Ocean

Projekt

Cold and alone, you wrap your arms around yourself the way your lover used to do. The candle flame flickers, casting warm shadows upon the ceiling, the light wavering in your eyes as the tears begin to come, the memories of what you both had and lost. The walls close in around you, suffocatingly close, and you turn inward, escaping into a brighter dream of futures past, full hearts and trembling lips, hope and despair intimately entwined, shifting and shimmering like sunlit shadows on ocean waves.

For anyone who has loved desperately and lost desolately, Over the Ocean will be a warm and welcoming companion in the madness. Building achingly lovely, fragile songs around Erin Welton’s gorgeous voice and lush keyboards and Scott Ferrell’s hypnotic guitar textures, Autumn’s Grey Solace picks up where Love Spirals Downward left off. Both earthy and ethereal, Erin’s singing alternately swathes you in a warm, loving embrace and strands you in a cold, dark place, waiting for a companion who will never come. Listening to her voice, surrounded with Scott’s plucked and strummed and chiming guitars, is like taking a trip to the edge of dream, submerging briefly in the inky waters of nightmare, then finally surfacing in the land of the living once more. A find for fans of heavenly voices, shoegazer guitars and gothic romanticism.

Projekt: www.projekt.com

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Music Reviews

Unto Ashes

Unto Ashes

Empty into White

Projekt

There are very few bands that can work magic with their music. Unto Ashes is definitely one. Like their previous two albums with Projekt, Empty into White is a deeply rewarding blend of hypnotic drums and percussion, mesmerizing female and male vocals and exquisitely played archaic and contemporary instruments, from dulcimers and guitars to keyboards and hurdy-gurdy. Some recognizable signposts might be goth or apocalyptic folk, Fire and Ice or Dead Can Dance, but really Unto Ashes charts a territory that is uniquely its own.

In the realm of Unto Ashes, falling in love and falling into the final darkness of madness or death are one, linked by the same ecstatic obliteration of the self. On the brilliant “Spider Song,” Ericah Hagle’s intoxicating voice tempts a man to sacrifice himself and become one with her web, surrounding him on all sides with the musk of her desire, pinning him against a glorious backdrop of tablas and bells, hammered dulcimer and string-synths.

You never know quite what you’ll run into next as you delve deeper into Empty into White — from invocations of power (“Witches’ Rune” or “Allu Mari”) to a cover of a Tori Amos song (“Beauty Queen,” here sung Latin), a Texas folksong (“Go Tell Aunt Rhodie”) and a very spooky version of “Don’t Fear (The Reaper).” You’ll also encounter deeply disturbing visions painted with instruments alone. On “Persephone, Queen of the Underworld,” daughter of the Earth goddess is forced to endure the endless delights of Death, depicted with drums and the demonic buzzing of the Persian saz. “1914” evokes the image of a beautiful young maiden, paler than the moonlight and dressed in all white, playing a lament for her lost love on a grand piano in a room draped in black velvet, as the tears of the sky roll down the ivy-shrouded windowpanes. All that is sure is that by the time you step through the final gate on the unnamed 19th track — a deeper blackness yawning in the night at the edge of a wood, shimmering and rippling as crickets chirp all around you and strange cries buzz from beyond the opening — you will never be the same again.

Projekt: http://www.projekt.com/ • Unto Ashes: http://www.untoashes.com/

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Music Reviews

Subterranean Source

Subterranean Source

Vivid Circles

Desolation House

In this first of a planned twelve limited-edition releases from Desolation House, Subterranean Source (a.k.a. Andrea Bellucci) has created one of the most deeply disturbing ambient albums I have heard in some time. If you’re a fan of Lustmord, you’ll definitely enjoy Vivid Circles. At times, it also reminds me of my favorite collaboration between VidnaObmana and Steve Roach, Well of Souls. Wave after wave of deep drones submerge you in gloriously suffocating soundscapes, daring you to close your eyes and seek the subterranean source of all life’s beauty and terror.

The opening track, “Growing,” takes the listener on a guided tour of hell. Deep, suffocating drones show you what it feels like to be buried miles beneath the surface of the earth, your ears forever echoing with the groans, moans, howls and wails of the damned souls entombed there with you. More percussive sounds reveal the wheels of thousands of racks turning, twisting and stretching the gaunt limbs of a pathetic array of shabby creatures that were once human. Their shrieks of unendurable agony give way to packs of demonic wolves howling at a leprous moon that shines on the putrid gray-green seas on which a ghost ships rides, tossed this way and that as unimaginably high waves crash across her decks and terrified sailors desperately try to keep her afloat, only to sink in the end.

The closing track, “Ancient Echoes,” also begins with low drones, but this time they waver occasionally as dreams from the world of the living dip into their depths, creating ever-expanding circles of near-forgotten memories. These memories lap at the edges of a bottomless pool in a lightless cavern at the roots of the mountains, sucking at the layers upon layers of dust on the floor, piled up like centuries of time gone before. Rhythmic percussion and solemn bells intone invocations that stir these palimpsest-sands of the past, perhaps keeping them from billowing up and swallowing the present, or perhaps helping them do just that. And as the pulsating drums pound madly on, scenes of all humanity’s past dance unseen upon the walls of the cavern, endless battles slaughtering thousands balanced with the births of thousands more; the moans of passionate couplings in a thousand beds merge with the rattling last breaths of the dying laid in thousands more. Finally the blessed or blasphemous ceremony ends; the drums stop, their echoes fade, and the waters and sands of the chamber are silenced again for another Age.

Desolation House: http://www.desolationhouse.com/

Categories
Music Reviews

Unto Ashes

Unto Ashes

Empty into White

Projekt

There are very few bands I would say can actually work magick with their music, but Unto Ashes is definitely one. Like their previous two albums with Projekt, Empty into White is a deeply rewarding blend of hypnotic drums and percussion, mesmerizing female and male vocals and exquisitely played archaic and contemporary instruments, from dulcimers and guitars to keyboards and hurdy-gurdy. Some recognizable signposts might be goth or apocalyptic folk (Fire and Ice or Dead Can Dance), but Unto Ashes really charts a territory that is uniquely its own.

In the realm of Unto Ashes, falling in love and falling into the final darkness of madness or death become one, linked by the same ecstatic obliteration of the self. As in the brilliant “Spider Song,” in which Ericah Hagle’s intoxicating voice tempts a man to sacrifice himself and become one with her web, surrounding him on all sides with the musk of her desire, pinning him unstruggling against a glorious backdrop of tablas and bells, hammered dulcimer and string-synths.

You never know quite what you’ll run into next as you delve deeper into Empty into White — from invocations of power (“Witches’ Rune” or “Allu Mari”) to covers of a Tori Amos song (“Beauty Queen,” but with the lyrics in Latin), a Texas folksong (“Go Tell Aunt Rhodie”) and a very spooky version of “Don’t Fear (The Reaper).” You’ll also encounter deeply disturbing visions painted with instruments alone — of “Persephone, Queen of the Underworld,” daughter of the Earth goddess now forced to endure the endless delights of Death during the winter of the year, depicted with drums and the demonic buzzing of the Persian saz; or of the terrible year “1914,” in which a beautiful young maiden, paler than the moonlight and dressed all in white, plays a lament for her lost love on a grand piano in a room all draped in black velvet, as the tears of the sky roll down the ivy-shrouded windowpanes. All that is sure is that by the time you step through the final gate on the unnamed 19th track — a deeper blackness yawning in the night at the edge of a wood, shimmering and rippling as crickets chirp all around you and strange cries echo from beyond the opening — you will never be the same again.

Projekt: http://www.projekt.com/ • Unto Ashes: http://www.untoashes.com/

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Music Reviews

Chandeen

Chandeen

Echoes

Kalinkaland

In our nonstop, frenzied world of bright lights and blaring sirens, the cool shadows and subtle romance of Chandeen’s Echoes come as a very welcome respite. Unfolding at its own deliberate, introspective pace, Echoes weaves a gorgeous tapestry of heavenly female voices and hypnotic keyboards, moody cello and rhythmic acoustic guitar.

Most of the songs on Echoes deal in mystery and magic, lost loves and waking dreams. One of my favorites is “Impressions — La Fruite de la Lune”, which brings the twilight vision described in Oscar Wilde’s lyrics to dusky, jasmine-perfumed life. A meditative acoustic guitar begins the track, soon set into soaring flight by Antje Schulz’s lovely, fragile, innocent voice, floating lost and lonely above the desolate landscape painted by Harald Lowy’s dark synth textures. By the end, the guitar’s hypnotic rhythm has almost lulled you to sleep as the shimmering synths sparkle like stars and the strings swell around you, perfectly evoking the humbling immensity of the night sky. Another standout track is “A Dream,” whose synth drones and entrancing female voice fill your senses, surrounding you with liquid warmth as you float into the pleasant dislocation of William Blake’s intoxicating dream-lyrics.

All in all, Chandeen’s Echoes is another fine album from one of the founders of European ethereal/heavenly voices music. The only real complaint I have is that it’s rather short — just 39 minutes of shadowed romantic bliss.

Chandeen: http://www.chandeen.com/ • Kalinkaland Records: http://www.kalinkaland.de/

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Music Reviews

Loveliescrushing

Loveliescrushing

Voirshn

Projekt

With Voirshn, Loveliescrushing carries on the shoegazer torch My Bloody Valentine lit with Loveless, while venturing deeper into dark ambient territory. Half of the ten tracks are instrumentals that make use of heavily processed guitars and synths; the rest add the incredibly lovely, soaring ethereal singing of Melissa Arpin-Henry. Most of the album has a simultaneously soothing and unnerving feel, like falling in love, or watching a cauldron full of boiling stew, never quite knowing what’s going to bubble to the surface next. You will be soothed by angelic voices and warm synth washes, only to be jolted out of your reverie by backwards guitar warbles, unidentifiable electronic noise and buzzing static.

I can’t say this is my favorite album, because I never felt like I could relax and lose myself in the music — I was always on my guard for the next unexpected feedback blip to interrupt the bliss. I often found myself wishing they’d pull back on the noise a bit and let more of the gorgeous vocals come through. But there’s still a lot of fascinating stuff here, especially for shoegazer fans, and some very well done dark ambient work on several tracks. “Ronea,” with its spooky synth, sounds like a glistening demon’s finger sing-scraping the edge of a goblet half-filled with blood. “Vihygen,” with deep drones moving underneath the gentle surface synths, creates a wonderfully menacing, claustrophobic feel. Probably my favorite track is the epic-length “shivon,” which begins with a gorgeous female voice echoing in a dark void; muted electronic blips weave in and out, chopping the voice into nearly unrecognizable bits, then stitching them back together into a Frankensteinian creation. The result is like listening to a dark angel sing, in a voice no human was meant to hear; far too beautiful to stop listening to, but deeply disturbing too.

Projekt Records: http://www.projekt.com/

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Music Reviews

Eric Wallack and Greg Segal

Eric Wallack and Greg Segal

Asleep or Somewhere Else

Phantom Airship Records

In a world dominated by cookie-cutter, ready-made bands churned out in droves by the major labels to fill whatever market niche happens to be at the top of their list, it’s a relief to know there are still truly original musicians out there making interesting music completely off the major-label radar. As those of you who’ve read my Ink19 interview with him already know, Greg Segal is one of those true originals. Earning a reputation as “guitarist of a thousand sounds” for his work with the improvisational rock/jazz band Paper Bag in the 1980s, Greg long ago chose to go his own way, making his own music on his own label so he could retain complete creative control. Asleep or Somewhere Else is Greg’s first collaboration with Eric Wallack, another independent musician who specializes in homemade instruments and plays just about everything you can think of, from guitar to upright bass, flute to drums, sax to keyboards.

Asleep is a truly mind-expanding, refreshing change from commercial music. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to pigeonhole into any one category. Many of the tracks have a prog-rock sound tinged with blues a la early Pink Floyd or Hawkwind, but others have more of a Fripp-and-Eno ambient atmosphere; some are jazzy or funky, and still others are highly experimental. One unifying theme, though, is an improvisational, free-form aesthetic. Another is an overall meditative, twilight-to-dawn kind of feel.

It’s hard for me to single out individual tracks from the album to praise, because I like pretty much all of them. Occasionally, a particular line of improvisational inquiry might seem to meander on a bit too long for its own good, but even these “dead ends” always lead the listener somewhere interesting. Having said that, though, I’m more a fan of meditative, darker ambience than anything else these days, and thus I gravitate towards a number of tracks in that vein on Asleep.

On “Tape Before Dawn,” electric guitars and live loops coolly cascade down from the heavens, like gray trickles of light seeping their way into a sleep-darkened valley. “The Purple Life” pairs Eric’s sax and Greg’s electric guitar in full-out free jazz: joyful at first, glorying in exploration and freedom, then slowly shifting to a more menacing feel as you become more aware of the things at the edges of your awareness, waiting their chance to creep into your reality, their tentatively questing tentacles brushing wetly across your brow as they search for the cracks in the doors separating their world from yours. “Soft Glass” combines smooth electric guitar drones and loops with percussive, water-glass like chimes. The loops give the track a very meditative feel, and combined with the chime-percussion, they remind me of the colored patterns you can see in a wine glass if you turn it towards the light just so, or the sounds snowflakes might make as they fall from the sky if we could hear them, tumbling against each other like grains of frozen sand, each ringing and sparkling with its own unique tone.

Phantom Airship Records: http://www.gregsegal.com • Eric Wallack, http://www.homemademusic.com/artists/ericwallack/

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Music Reviews

Tommy Peoples

Tommy Peoples

Waiting for a Call

Shanachie

Tommy Peoples is a living legend of Irish traditional music, revered by generations of musicians and fans for his intense, intricately ornamented, high-energy fiddling. Around 1985, he recorded about two-thirds of an album’s worth of music with Alec Finn, founding member of De Dannan and bouzouki player extraordinaire, uilleann piper Sean Potts, and Donal Lunny on bodhran. The tapes languished on Shanachie’s shelves until 2002, when Peoples recorded another five sets of tunes with John Doyle, former guitarist with Solas and now a fine solo musician. The old and new sets added up to more than an hour’s worth of music, and Waiting for a Call finally saw the light of day.

Unlike many other Irish fiddlers today, Peoples has a very rough, pure, almost old-timey sound, digging deep into the strings to pull up every ounce of emotion they can deliver (and occasionally drawing up some scratchiness along with the emotion). If you’re used to more polished sounds, the results can take some getting used to, but it’s well worth making the effort to tune yourself to Peoples’ frequency. It’s a wonder to experience his transitions from tune to tune, deceptively easy and unforced, and the little touches he puts to the music are often quite lovely, such as the beautifully connected sets of rising notes (quintuplets?) on “Kit O’Mahony’s” jig. Comparing the 1985 and 2002 tracks, Peoples seems to have mellowed a bit, steering clear of most of the super-high notes and concentrating instead on lower, sweeter sounds, which suits me just fine.

Several tracks feature Peoples solo, and I very much enjoyed these, especially the reels “The Drunken Landlady” and “The Fisherman’s Island.” On this set, Peoples fills the studio with sound and motion, effortlessly rolling across the strings at breakneck speed. But the accompanied tracks are lovely as well. I’m partial to the uilleann pipes, so I love the tracks where Peoples and Sean Potts harmonize on fiddle and pipes, especially on the strathspey “King George IV,” a tune with a somewhat march-like tempo that’s often heard in Peoples’s home county of Donegal. And there’s also some great fiddle-bouzouki harmonizing between Peoples and Alec Finn in the set of reels “The Colliers / Bob McQuillen’s / The Spike Island Lassies.” Donal Lunny’s bodhran and John Doyle’s percussive style of guitar accompaniment also lend some great rhythm and “bottom end” to a number of tunes. All in all, Waiting for a Call is a fine offering from a master of Irish fiddling.

Shanachie: http://www.shanachie.com/

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Music Reviews

Benjamin Stauffer

Benjamin Stauffer

The Tears of Things

Somnimage

Walls of guitars and frenzied drum machines can build a perfect wall of goth sound, but to tear it down and get right to the heart of darkness, give me keyboards any day, the sparser and more vulnerable-sounding the better. A lot of the European groups have this idea down cold, such as Stoa and Collection d’Arnell-Andreacute. With his fine neoclassical album The Tears of Things, Chicagoan Benjamin Stauffer shows that Americans can craft melancholy keyboard soundscapes with the best of the Europeans.

Ranging from solo, vulnerable-sounding piano to enveloping swaths of synth drones and electronic percussion a la Raison d’Etre or Arcana, The Tears of Things on the whole tends towards the quieter end of the darkwave spectrum. Evoking a wide array of vignettes and visions with his complex keyboard compositions, Stauffer crafts melancholy but not morose music, suffused with a nagging sense of loss –lost souls, lost loves, fractured memories, all covered in shadows and dust.

A good example is the opening track “Loss,” with its lovely solo piano melody, slow and stately, but constantly shifting and changing, painting a vision of shadows chasing each other across the walls of your darkening room, caressing your face with their coolness like nearly forgotten memories of gentle hands that touched you once, so long ago. Or “Still Waiting,” with its pianos and synths opening the door to an abandoned room, dust piled thickly on every surface, with motes suddenly set into swirling, shimmering motion by an errant breeze and sunbeam, dancing across the room just like she did, with her gypsy skirts whirling around her, laughing and alive; then the synths strip down to just piano for a while, playing the melody from the music box she left behind to remind you of her, and finally fade away to nothing, leaving you fragile, vulnerable and very much alone.

Somnimage http://www.somnimage.com/